Or the Percy-Nevill feud. It all depends which way you look at it.
Ralph Griffiths in Local Rivalries and national politics: the Percies, the Nevilles and the Duke of Exeter, described the Nevill-Percy feud as “a struggle of giants”. By the 1450s, both families had been prominent (if not dominant) in the north of England for almost a hundred years. During the early 1400s, the Percies had suffered a serious setback, from which they were only just recovering. Relations between the two families may have been somewhat strained at this time, but that didn’t prevent Joan Beaufort, widow of Ralph Nevill, from placing her young ward, Richard duke of York, under the tutelage of Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland. Nor did it prevent a marriage between the earl and Joan’s daughter, Eleanor.
The two wardenships of the Marches towards Scotland (West and East) were held by the Percies and the Nevills respectively, and it was this that arguably gave each family its greatest opportunities to acquire wealth and power. The wardenships were passed down from father to son and from son to brother; when the troubles began, devolving almost into open warfare, they were held by Henry Percy earl of Northumberland and Richard Nevill earl of Salisbury. The two men often worked co-operatively to ensure the integrity of the northern border. Had it not been for the younger sons of both earls, this might have continued indefinitely.
A minor dispute between the earls, which if left to them would probably have been swiftly resolved, led to a bitter, protracted series of threats, raids and narrowly averted pitched battles once their sons got involved.
Henry Percy lord Poynings, Northumberland’s oldest son, held himself aloof from the squabbles, as did Richard Nevill earl of Warwick. Thomas and John Nevill, on the one hand, and their cousins Thomas Percy lord Egremont, Ralph and Richard Percy, on the other, didn’t. All five would have been beneficiaries of a fine military education, and as younger sons would have had time on their hands and, perhaps, a need to prove themselves. Egremont, described in Complete Peerage as quarrelsome, violent and contemptuous of all authority and John Nevill, Salisbury’s third son, soon established themselves as the focal point for each side. A series of assaults on property soon escalated with each of the men gathering around them a sizeable personal force.
None of this pleased the king or his council. Letters were sent to both earls instructing them to keep their sons under control; summonses to council were issued and commissions were set up. All were ignored.
On 29 July 1453, John Nevill, determined to get his hands on Egremont, arrived with his men at Topcliffe House. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade the men of Topcliffe to help him capture Egremont. This having failed, he turned to threats, offering to hang every man in the place if they didn’t hand his cousin over to him.
In desperation, council sent a letter to Egremont ordering him to get himself ready for military service in France. He ignored this. A commission of oyer and terminer was set up, heavily weighted in favour of the Nevills, but this too solved nothing. Finally, frustrated by their lack of success, responsibility for clearing up the ever expanding mess was laid squarely on the shoulders of Salisbury and Northumberland. A second, more representative commission also failed to resolve the situation.
While the various family estates in Yorkshire and Cumbria were the main recruiting grounds, both Nevill and Percy support in York was exploited and on one occasion the Nevill house in the city was assaulted by Egremont’s men.
The first occasion of open hostility involving sizeable forces occurred at Heworth, just outside York, on 24 August 1453. With over 700 men named on the Percy side in a subsequent inquiry, and the Nevills themselves heavily supported by armed men, it could have been very nasty. It would seem, however, that there were no deaths and little bloodshed. With so many Nevills on the road, including the earl and countess of Salisbury and both Thomas and John, the opportunity must have been too good for Egremont to pass up. This was a wedding party, Thomas Nevill having just days ago married Maud Stanhope at Tattershall Castle, the seat of her uncle lord Cromwell. Some commentators have suggested that it was this marriage that incensed the Percys, who’d had some hopes of acquiring Wressle Castle which would now soon be in Nevill hands. Hicks disputes this, citing both the feud’s history and the unlikelihood of Wressle ever going to the Nevills. Whatever his motivation, Egremont and his brother Richard blocked the Nevills’ path as they moved from York to Sheriff Hutton. What actually happened is not known, nor why the Nevills managed to complete their journey intact. It might be that, at the last minute, Egremont realised what his actions could lead to and withdrew. Or he might have underestimated the size of the Nevill escort and decided that, on this occasion, discretion was the better part of valour. Or there might have been a short, indecisive skirmish.
Almost immediately, Salisbury sent for his oldest son, Richard earl of Warwick, who hadn’t been home for more than five years by this time. A letter found Warwick at Grafton, on his way back from Wales with his countess (where he was engaged in his own property dispute with the duke of Somerset.) He immediately diverted north.
Meanwhile, Egremont and John Nevill continued their campaigns of property destruction and threats of violence. Lawrence Catterall, bailiff of Staincliff wapentake, was taken prisoner by Egremont in Gargrave church during a service. He was taken to Cockermouth and held in Isel Castle until his term as bailiff expired. What he had done to warrant this is not known. The reason for a raid on the house of William Hebdon, vicar of Aughton in September 1453, led by John Salvin, a prominent Percy retainer, is also obscure.
John Nevill behaved a little bit better than this. On 25 September he broke into Catton House, a Percy property in the north riding, and inflicted considerable damage.
Griffiths writes: “On … 8 October letters tinged as much with sorrow as with anger were sent [from the government] to Northumberland and Salisbury, exhorting them to remember their position as commissioners of the peace and members of the king’s council. They were reminded that parliament, which was still in session, had warned lords to express their grievances in writing and not in blood; yet the letters concluded wearily, the earls continued to make the ‘grettest assemblee of our liegemen’. Stronger language was directed at Egremont and sir John Neville on the same busy day; they were reminded that they had been created barons in expectation of future service not rebellious rioting; gritting its teeth, the council warned them both that if they did not desist, they would suffer forfeiture.”
This letter, too, was ignored.
On 20 October, with Henry Fitzhugh, John Scrope of Bolton and other prominent retainers with them, the Nevills, including Warwick, were in the village of Sandhutton, just miles from Topcliffe. In the house were the earl of Northumberland, his sons and Thomas Clifford. Whatever the purpose of the visit, the Nevills departed soon after with no blood being spilled. It may be that the two earls conducted negotiations, both backed by a show of force, aimed at ending the feud.
In May 1454, with the backing of his Nevill in-laws, the duke of York took control of the government, being named Protector and Defender during the time of Henry VI’s first bout of illness. York immediately set about resolving the situation in the north of England. Now with official backing, John Nevill’s hunt for Percy was legitimated. Even Clifford, a staunch Percy ally and not known for his fondness for the Nevills, was compelled to support government efforts to quell the troubles. This was made more urgent by the alliance of Henry Holland duke of Exeter with Egremont in his ill-advised attempt at rebellion.
The nascent rebellion fell apart, Exeter fled to London and Westminster sanctuary and, near Stamford, John Nevill finally got his hands on his cousin. By this time, with the failure of their venture with Exeter fresh in their minds and the Protector in the city of York, and with John Nevill breathing down their necks, morale in the Percy camp must have been quite low. Two hundred of their men balked at the thought of further conflict and left. Egremont and his brother Richard had no choice but to lay down their arms. They were taken first to Middleham thence to York. Egremont was fined an extortionate amount for his action as Heworth, an amount he could not hope to pay, and was taken to Newgate prison in London, where he remained for the next two years.
With Egremont’s imprisonment, things began to settle down. However, the death of the earl of Northumberland at the first battle of St Albans in May 1455 turned the late conflict into a blood feud. In successive battles throughout the Wars, Percys either fell in action or to the headsman’s blade. Egremont died at Northampton, Henry and Richard at Towton and Ralph at Hedgeley Moor. The young 4th earl was taken prisoner after Towton and eventually housed in the Tower of London.
With the accession of Edward IV in 1461, the Nevills were paramount and the Percy survivors were sidelined. In 1465 the earldom of Northumberland was given to John Nevill. This must have signalled to him ultimate Nevill triumph over the Percys. He was, by all accounts, immensely proud and gratified with his new title.
However, when Henry Percy (by now the third of that name in this narrative) swore fealty to Edward IV, the king felt the need to restore him to the family titles and estates. John Nevill was stripped of his earldom. This precipitated his defection to his brother Warwick, now in open revolt against the king, and ultimately to his death at Barnet in April 1471. Only now did the Nevill-Percy feud come to an end.
Some commentators have suggested that the confrontation at Heworth Moor was the first action in the Wars of the Roses, however I think that this is drawing far too long a bow. What it did do was to establish the division of the two most powerful houses in the north of England between York and Lancaster, which the outcome of the first battle of St Albans fixed in place. Neither family comes out of this smelling of roses, though Egremont’s behaviour and actions were considerably more ruthless and uncontrolled than those of John Nevill. It is interesting to speculate how differently things might have gone had someone seized control of the situation early in the piece – either the fathers of the young men with too much time and energy on their hands, or the king, Henry VI.
All of the men but one leading the confrontations at Heworth and at Topcliffe died by violence: Richard Nevill, earl of Salisbury; Richard Nevill, earl of Warwick; sir Thomas Nevill; John Nevill; Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland (2); Thomas Percy, lord Egremont; sir Ralph Percy; sir Richard Percy; John Scrope of Bolton. Henry Fitzhugh died in his bed in 1472.